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Lunch counter and Coffee Shop foods

I recently had a tuna sandwich in a small cafe that reminded me of the lovely lunch counter sandwiches I enjoyed as a kid. I was on white toast, with a nice tuna salad (with celery), lovely dill pickles, thinly sliced onions, and crisp lettuce. It was delicious. It was close to the sandwich I would eat at the Co-op lunch counter or at Blum's, long gone now.

I also enjoyed the steak soup at Pam Pam coffee shop, also long gone.

Somehow I feel that with the gourmet revolution that these simple, yet yummy, dishes and venues have been lost.

Did you have any favorite places, or dishes that you'd get at a lunch counter or coffee shop?

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  1. I don't have a favorite counter and have not been to one in a while. BLT and Grilled Cheese are my favorites at that type of place.

    1. Nice topic & one dear to my heart. As a kid - loved wolworth's lunch counter - patty melt! Unfortunately, seems this country is loosing its lunch counters, diners, coffee shops and being overrun with starbucks & subways. Sad really.

      1. You are absolutely right that the "gourmet revolution" has pretty much washed away many of the pet recipes from the pre-gourmet days. And that's a bit sad, although on the whole I would say that America's culinary scene is in better shape in 2010 than it was in 1960.

        8 Replies
        1. re: Perilagu Khan

          What in the hell are "pre-gourmet days?" Better shape than in 1960? <sheesh> I don't mean to pick on you, but Sweetie Pie, in the 1950s and 1960s I was regularly serving things like oysters Rockerfeller, lobster Thermador, tournedos Rossini, coq au vin, baked Alaska, and while I lived in Turkey, a pound or two of fresh beluga caviar from the Black Sea was a regular feature at my cocktail parties. I can no longer get beef that tastes like that beef tasted, or oysters either, and beluga caviar is no longer available in the United States in any amount, let alone by the kilo! Could I buy fresh strawberries in December in 1960? Not unless I was in the Southern Hemisphere. I would LOVE to have what you're calling the "un-gourmet" foods of the 60s available to me today! LOVE IT...!!! But before your feelings are too hurt and you feel as if I'm picking on you, let me explain something. Think of food as music. All of the notes are there all of the time. It's what you do with them. In all times and in all places there are those who listen to and eat "highbrow" and there are those who don't. Never think that just because you didn't get any, no one at the party had ice cream. '-)

          Now, about lunch counter foods... I don't remember if it was Kress' or Woolworths in San Diego that served my favorite, but it was the "Hot Roast Beef Sandwich." Two slices of gummy white breat cut in half diagonally, arranged decoratively on the crockery, each piece topped with a slice of slow roasted beef, then topped with more gummy white bread triangles and a large igloo-like mound of mashed potatoes at the side with everything bathed in a rich deep brown beef gravy. DEEEElicious...!!! I think it was 59¢ and came with a side of green beans and for another nickel all of the iced tea you could drink in an hour. I have tried for many years to duplicate that dish. I have come close, but so far no cigar. They just don't grow beef like they used to! Oh, and both of those dime store's lunch counters had really good grilled cheese sammiches.

          And then waaaaay back in the 1930s and '40s, also in San Diego, there was The Chicken Pie Shop. I loved that place when I was about five. WOW! I just Googled it and it's still there...! Opened in 1938 and is still going strong! Except now it's seven bucks for a chicken pie, mashed potatoes and gravy, a fluffy biscuit, veggies of choice and pie for dessert. Coconut cream anyone? Oh, wow, and here I am far far away in the DFW metroplex with no chicken pies! Poor baby.

          Another childhood lunch counter favorite was a place that was something like a revolving automat. I can't remember the name of it or I'd Google to see if it's still there, but they had a huge round counter that probably seated at least thirty or forty, plus tables without the conveyor belt food. The conveyor belt ran inside a "glass tunnel" that ran on the inside edge of the counter and had a door at each stool. You took a seat and watched what food was coming along through the tunnel, then opened the door in front of you and took out what you wanted. I loved that place too. Except for the time I reached for a somtthing that looked good (a sandwich? a salad?) only to find it had raw onions in it. BLECH!!! So I gave it to my grandfather and got some rice pudding.

          Roast beef sandwiches, chicken pies and rice pudding. What could be better than that? Especially when you're a little kid! I loooove time travel!

          1. re: Caroline1

            Didn't have time to read the entire peroration, but based upon your opening paragraph I will say that I inferred from the orignal user of the term "pre gourmet" that she was actually talking about the pre-immigration influx days. Ca. 1965 America's immigration laws were liberalized and there was massive immigration, much of it from the third world, and this influx dramatically changed America's culinary scene. I inferred that the original user used pre-gourmet and multiethnicization coterminously.

            1. re: Perilagu Khan

              Nice compact serving of bullshit! '-)

            2. re: Caroline1

              Horn and Hardart's Automat. My favorite place to go in NYC when I was a kid.

              1. re: monku

                I've always regreted never having eaten there, but hey, the merry-go-round was fund! mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.... I wonder if THAT was the name of the place? The Merry Go Round Cafe? hmmm... Maybe.

                1. re: monku

                  I loooooved Horn and Hardart. Their baked beans were beyond compare. The mac and cheese, mmmmm. I'm so glad I got to experience that (many times).

                2. re: Caroline1

                  Caroline1-

                  Re: The San Diego Chicken Pie Shop: All the pie crusts and rolls are still made in house and the pies are still just chicken meat and gravy (no veggies inside the pie, but some vegetable of the day on the side). Coconut cream pie is the cream pie of the day on Tuesday and Saturday. When we moved here, the "Pie Meal" was $3.10 and included the beverage. The location changed about 15 years ago, but the food didn't.

                  Re: Woolworth's. My memory is the cook dropping two small frozen waffles into a rotating toaster, having the toasted hot waffles drop out and placement of a slab of neopolitan ice cream between. Just me and dad.

                  I still sit at the counter, if there is one, when I go out.

                  1. re: Cathy

                    The first time I went to The Chicken Pie Shop (original location), the full meal was under a buck. I want REAL time travel! Earn now, shop then! '-)

                    As for Woolworths -- the original downtown San Diego location anyway -- one of the things I loved about the place was that as you worked your way across the store to the lunch counter, there was a counter just as you came in the door that sold fresh, real gardenia corsages with a metalic silver ribbon for 15¢...!!! Just thinking about eating a grilled cheese sandwich, sipping iced tea and smelling a fresh gardenia gives me a rampant case of warm fuzzies! '-)

              2. In the NYC area, a breakfast of bacon, egg & cheese on a NYC Hard Roll. Now that I don't live in the area, I really miss this simple breakfast.

                1 Reply
                1. re: cavandre

                  Even just a fried "egg on a roll" (that it be a hard roll was a given in my part of northern NJ. Insert Homer Simpson style "yumm mmglmmmgllh" been 25 years since I have had a real hard roll.

                2. Frito Pie! A single-serving bag of corn chips, ripped open on the back seam, doused with chili and smothered in grated cheese. Raw onions and jalapeno slices optional. The day they closed the Woolworth's on the square in Santa Fe will live forever in infamy.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    Frito pies, although not necessarily in the sack, are still extremely common in West Texas, and remain out-and-out delicious. I make my own monster Frito pie in a very large lasagna pan.

                    1. re: alanbarnes

                      Been there done that there...they closed that place?
                      I was just there a few years ago.

                      1. re: monku

                        Woolworth's closed all its stores in 1998 or so.

                      2. re: alanbarnes

                        Many/most Sonics still have Frito Pie on the menu.

                      3. Great topic, 5 &10 lunch counters where I would usually have the cheeseburger deluxe when shopping with my mom on a Saturday afternoon. Also, the lunch counter at G.Fox Dept. Store in Hartford, Ct. loved the ham salad sandwich on whole wheat and for dessert a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a slice of pound cake with hot fudge on top. Thanks for the memory.

                        1. from when i was a kid, the hot open-faced turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes, cranberry jelly, stuffing, and that bread that got totally soggy under the turkey... mushy almost and i loved it with the gravy.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Emme

                            Yes! With that yellowish poultry gravy. Classic coffee shop food.

                          2. I really lament the lack of chicken pot pie, salisbury steak, open faced meatloaf and turkey sandwiches, egg cream sodas, and milk toast.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              I keep threatening to open my own 'meat and three' kind of place - with pot pie, salisbury steak, open faced meatloaf, turkey and roast beef sandwiches, patty melts on proper grilled rye bread, and killer grilled cheese with bacon and tomato....

                              1. re: jeanmarieok

                                Please, please, PLEASE, move to a small SW Oregon coastal town and follow your dream! Please? That sounds so delicious!

                            2. Cherry cokes. I was always really grossed out by the open-faced turkey or roast beef on white bread with the gravy. Still am. I loved patty melts and grilled cheese.

                              1. As a child, I loved going shopping in downtown Corpus Christi or at the "new" Parkdale Plaza with my Nannie. Kress's had homemade pimento cheese, but at Walgreens or Woolworths I always ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, with extra pickles on the side. My drink of choice was a real fountain Dr Pepper with syrup and soda--they just don't make it like that anymore.

                                1. @cosmogrrl -- I posted about the Steak Soup a while back, and someone gave me a lead on finding the recipe. I'll post the Steak Soup here, just in case you're in need of a fix. :)

                                  Pam Pam Steak Soup

                                  1 lb. round steak, chopped fine
                                  ½ lb. butter
                                  1 cup flour
                                  1 ½ tablespoons Accent
                                  1 medium onion, chopped fine
                                  1 large carrot, chopped fine
                                  3 stalks celery, chopped fine
                                  1 (14 or 28 ounce) can diced/solid tomato, chopped fine
                                  1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
                                  1 ½ cups half and half
                                  3 quarts beef stock
                                  Salt and pepper

                                  Braise meat in oven or on top of stove, add vegetables, butter and flour. Mix well and cook for 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and stock, all spices and simmer for about 1 hour without it sticking to the bottom of pan. Add cream last 5 minutes before removing from heat. This soup can be frozen for later use. If it gets too thick add more beef stock, adjust seasonings. This recipe makes approximately one gallon of soup.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: mcsheridan

                                    Thanks so much for sharing this! Wonder if it works with out the Accent....

                                  2. I used to love to sit at the counter and have a toasted cinnamon bun or a toasted corn muffin.

                                    1. I remember Lyons coffee shops in the Bay Area in the 1970s. The food I liked best was the chocolate pudding. It was in parfait glasses topped with "whipped cream" and chocolate sprinkles. They kept the desserts in a chilled case and you picked out what you wanted. Jello, custards, layer cakes, pie as well as pudding. It was a beautiful thing.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: clematis

                                        the spinning dessert case... they still have these in a few delis... i look upon them fondly... always the parfait glass pudding with whipped topping, chocolate cake slab, cherry or apple pie, rice pudding, and a hunk of cheesecake... i always looked, but we rarely ever ordered... hm.